Correcting some of James McGrath’s misunderstandings

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by Neil Godfrey

Added more detail to my "advice" a the end of post: 21:11 pm -- 4 hours after original post.

I have left some corrections to Dr James McGrath’s recent post Overview of Part One of Earl Doherty’s Jesus: Neither God Nor Man (with Baloney Detection) on his site, and repeat them here along with a few other points. (A short response by Doherty is also found here on McGrath’s blog.) I conclude with some advice that McGrath has openly requested.

McGrath’s first point that needs several corrections is this:

3. Have the claims been verified by another source?

Neil Godfrey appeals frequently to a seemingly favorable statement by Stevan Davies, but elsewhere in the same discussion forum Davies indicates that he had not read Doherty’s book and describes it as equally nonsense viz-a-viz the dominant scholarly paradigm. And so the favorable statement is about what Davies had been told about Doherty’s stance, not about the actual articulation of it in detail in his book. While Doherty should not be blamed for what one of his supporters has done, this still serves as a cautionary reminder that quotes in favor of a fringe view sometimes are not what they initially appear to be.

I can only submit to the reader what I have been presenting in my blog series along with specific examples and illustrations: that I have been looking at Doherty’s claims closely and have found them wanting in the best of cases, in many others at best possible but unproven, and in still others patently false. So far there have been responses to my blog series which have nit-picked the tone and the wording of some of the posts, but have done nothing to salvage Doherty’s substantive points, as far as I can see. And it is not clear that other mainstream scholars who have looked at Doherty’s claims in detail speak in favor of the details, however much their words may have contained enough that is favorable to serve as a blurb.

As for my references to other scholars who have not seen the Christ myth idea in general, or Doherty’s arguments in particular, as “baloney” I have sought to cite scholars who are not themselves mythicists, but who nonetheless respect the idea and certain arguments (Doherty’s) made in its favour. Non-mythicist Albert Schweitzer wrote at some length a response to a range of mythicist arguments in his day with scholarly respect for many of them, and concluded that the church was on safer ground if it grounded itself on a metaphysic and not on a historical event.

Before I used Professor Stevan Davies’ words from Crosstalk I sought his permission and explained clearly the context in which I would be using them, and his agreement to my request is archived in my Permissions: Mine and Yours page. Davies’ statement was based on a series of exchanges with Earl Doherty over some time on the Crosstalk forum before Doherty’s book was published. His reference to not having read Doherty’s 250,000 words was a reference to Doherty’s full website. He was one of the academics on that discussion forum who did not respond with scorn and insult before even hearing the arguments — and he read many exchanges of Doherty with scholars on that discussion list. What he said in that Crosstalk post (and in the others McGrath links to) speaks for itself. I don’t think Davies would appreciate any innuendo that he wrote his words on mere heresay.

[Doherty] advocates a position that is well argued based on the evidence and even shows substantial knowledge of Greek.

McGrath overlooked Hector Avalos’s published view that Doherty’s argument was “plausible” — and Avalos indicated he had read Doherty’s first book.

McGrath says that the only criticisms of his posts on Doherty so far have managed to be nothing more than nitpicking complaints about their tone and choice of wording. Unfortunately in making this complaint McGrath demonstrates he has failed to grasp the real content of many of those criticisms (on his own blog, in response to Peter Kirby’s open letter, on my own blog). His interpretation of those criticisms as nitpicking over tone and wording should give all readers some idea of the way he can reduce the content of Doherty’s arguments to a few words of contemptuous dismissal. McGrath appears to have a habit of simply ignoring and dismissing what he does not seem to want to hear.

McGrath does say that he has been looking at Doherty’s claims closely. It is a shame he has kept the findings of his close study a secret from his readers.

I had expected in a Part 1 Overview post that McGrath would have summed up Doherty’s arguments and the specific reasons he finds them wanting. Unfortunately I don’t think there is a single criticism on McGrath’s overview that is not a repeat of what he has been declaiming against mythicism from the early days when he said he knew next to nothing about mythicist arguments.

I would like to see McGrath attempt a genuine summary presentation of any one of Doherty’s arguments, but he has indicated that he fears any fair treatment will only give comfort to mythicists, and that he must avoid at all costs.

On a couple of other blogs I’ve encountered some criticism of my supposedly not having adequately presented the full extent of Earl Doherty’s claims and arguments in his book Jesus: Neither God Nor Man – The Case for a Mythical Jesus. When someone offers a homeopathic remedy as a solution to an illness, I don’t see the need for a defender of mainstream medicine to point out that it is water and staying hydrated is a good thing, and can represent a positive effect of ingesting it. When someone defending mainstream science focuses on the flaws in a book promoting young-earth creationism or Intelligent Design, I won’t particularly mind if the one criticizing the work fails to highlight the occasional good point the author made.

and again in his Dealing Appropriately post:

I would love to be more polite, more objective, and if nothing else, give a better impression of myself in the process of reviewing Doherty’s book. But unless I find a way of making clear that the contents are altogether lacking in scholarly rigor, then my polite review will become fodder for mythicist quote-mining in support of their claims. And so I would truly value further input from you and other readers on how to navigate the waters between those two concerns.

Suggestion to Dr McGrath: Scientists can and do in many publications rebut creationism etc without any insult and simply be arguing the points, and addressing in full the arguments made by their opponents. They do not suppress or deny the arguments, but bring them out fully to show where they are wanting. I have several books on evolution taking this approach against creationism. It is not as hard as it seems. At least not for scientists. Summarize and explain Doherty’s arguments, as scientists explain and quote in full creationist arguments, and then show how your “science” rebuts them — if you can.

The Shermer questions for testing nonsense ill serve many of McGrath’s replies as most readers who take the time reading them can see for themselves.

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Neil Godfrey

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12 thoughts on “Correcting some of James McGrath’s misunderstandings”

    So far there have been responses to my blog series which have nit-picked the tone and the wording of some of the posts, but have done nothing to salvage Doherty’s substantive points, as far as I can see.

    Translation. People have been documenting where McGrath has failed to even mention Doherty’s arguments.

    McGrath’s answers are simply designed to remove contradictions between the image of Jesus in Paul’s letters and the image of Jesus in the Gospels, just as Josh McDowell has answers designed to remove contradictions between the image of Jesus in the Synoptics and the image of Jesus in John’s Gospel.

    Frankly, McDowell is better at that sort of apologetics. At least, he has not yet resorted to ‘answering’ Doherty by explaining that Paul could hardly afford paper.

    If I want unreferenced , unevidenced ad hoc assertions, made up on the spot and designed merely to paper over contradictions, I know where to go to now, as Josh McDowell often gives references for his assertions, meaning the unreferenced ad hoc ‘answers’ are not to be found there, but in Exploring Our Matrix.

    McGrath could learn something from McDowell , who does that sort of thing far better.

  2. unless I find a way of making clear that the contents are altogether lacking in scholarly rigor, then my polite review will become fodder for mythicist quote-mining in support of their claims

    So, the excuse for being dishonest is that you might be able to stifle the dishonesty of others?


    But unless I find a way of making clear that the contents are altogether lacking in scholarly rigor, then my polite review will become fodder for mythicist quote-mining in support of their claims.

    Quote mining?

    Mind you, there is one quote of McGrath that I adore reading :-

    ‘Drawing on Theissen and Winter, Keith and Hurtado argue that historical study should explain not that some material is authentic while other is not, but how the impact of Jesus led to both kinds of material being present in the tradition…The contrast between an older method, creating piles of inauthentic and authentic material, and a newer one that seeks to explain the whole tradition, sounds promising, but has the potential to be overplayed’

    Apparently, historical study is not to say which material is authentic and which is not…. It is more ‘promising’ to use methods which don’t try to decide what is authentic.

    Yeh, I bet it is!

    ‘New Testament scholars have sometimes been pioneers. The attempt to define criteria of authenticity was in fact an attempt to articulate more precisely and rigorously things that in most other areas of history were determined in much the same way, but with a far greater degree of intuition and instinct’

    McGrath explains that not only do NT scholars use only methods used by other scholars, but they also pioneer methods so sophisticated that historians in other fields do not use them, as historians in other fields replace the ‘rigour’ of NT historians with ‘intuition’ and ‘instinct’.

    Finally, my favourite quote from McGrath ‘And even if a particular detail in the Gospels is a summary by the author rather than a saying of Jesus himself, it may give us an accurate impression. Even fabricated material may provide a true sense of the gist of what Jesus was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned.’

    Who cares what Jesus said? If an author provides a (ahem) ‘summary’, that is enough for the precisely rigourous McGrath, who works with fabricated material, however inauthentic it may be.

  4. It’s really ironic that at this point Dr. McGrath has to enlist as an ally in his cause someone (Stevan Davies) who roundly pronounces Dr. McGrath’s own theory (Jesus’ Historictity) to be nonsense, yet somehow this doesn’t mean that Dr. McGrath is a crackpot, but does mean that Doherty is.

  5. “In his latest “review” he even “justifies” not giving a fair account of what Doherty himself writes. It is clear his sole intention is to stop people reading Doherty’s book and to stifle any serious discussion about mythicism.”

    That would be a worthy effort. Before I go to a movie, I often read some reviews. If they are all negative, I don’t pay money to see it, if the feed back is really bad, I don’t even waste my time when it is on T.V. If a book is a waste of time and money, why encourage any one to see it for them selves? The only value is if just really want to see a mythicist book, other wise it is like inviting some one to smell a particularly smelly fart. If you don’t trust McGrath’s opinion that the book is a boner, then by all means part with your hard earned $12.99 and 10 hours of life.

    “For the record, I copy below excerpts from earlier posts of mine offering views by biblical scholars about Doherty’s work that are quite different from McGrath’s. Does McGrath compare Professor Stevan Davies or Hector Avalos — or Professor Thomas L. Thompson for that matter — to “creationists”?”
    No, their fairly muted in their endorsements of it, I mean McGrath may think their all nuts to, I can’t read his mind, but nothing in the blurbs I’ve seen from them suggest they that impressed by his arguments. Even you(Neil), who have spent a lot of time defending Earl’s work, aren’t convinced. When I first heard about Doherty’s book I was intrigued, it seems like a bold idea, it takes Jesus myth out of the old rehashed pagan myth ideas of the past, and it explores Jewish mysticism in a way that I also am looking into. Failing to get it though interlibrary loan, and not wanting to buy a book with so little good appraisals held off, and I’ve gotten enough free samples to be convinced that the rest could not be worth reading. The deep tracks are rarely better than the singles.

    1. It sounds like you would have dismissed the ideas of Copernicus and Galileo when they were alive because they had bad press from the establishment, too. Even Davies, who is not a mythicist, describes Earl Doherty’s work as just such a new paradigm, well argued, and from which he has learned much.

      You have misunderstood my position with Doherty’s ideas. It is possible to be persuaded or see strong explanatory power by a central idea while not agreeing with all aspects of an argument. I certainly agree with his reading of the NT epistles and the philosophical and religious world from which they and other early various Christian texts emerged. I also agree with most of what he says about the gospels, but I also approach the gospel narratives from a different perspective that in no way contradicts anything Doherty says.

      Disagreeing with some aspects, and having my own view on some others, does not lessen the value of Earl Doherty’s work at all for me. It’s the difference between being a follower of a person and sharing an engagement with an idea or argument.

      But what McGrath is doing is rehashing everything he has already said about mythicism to attack on Doherty (often personally) without informing readers of what his arguments are or why they are bad, and falsely accusing Doherty of saying things he does not say and not addressing points he does address.

    2. I recently read a book ‘in defense of’ Israel against the often overblown condemnation of her. But if I had encountered a couple of reviews of that book ahead of time which were written by Palestinians, whose attitude was obviously that Israel was evil and could do no right, should I on that basis have passed up reading it, especially if those reviewers refused to consider any arguments whatsoever in Israel’s favor and simply rejected her right to exist? (Parallels with McGrath are obvious.) Would you trust a review of a documentary on raising animals for food written by a member of PETA? When you consider reviews of anything, Mike, books, movies, restaurants, do you evaluate possible biases on the part of the reviewer, possible other points of view he or she may be overlooking? Or do you always let those reviewers do your thinking for you?

  6. Dr. James McGrath made the following statement in a blog post last August:

    “I found myself wondering whether Jesus might have been viewed by the Gospel author as, like God, above such ethical matters just as God could be depicted as sending a lying spirit to deceive a king (1 Kings 22:22). I also wonder whether Jesus might be an example of the appropriateness of deception in order to preserve oneself in a context of persecution.”

    See McGrath’s full post and blogger comments at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2016/08/snts-third-main-paper-and-simultaneous-short-papers.html

    What do others think about McGrath’s post about Jesus and God as liars?

    1. In case anyone is interested in the topic of “Lies and Deception” in the ancient world, I’m starting a new Blog on that topic called “Palpatine’s Way.” My first post on “Lying in the Judeo Christian and Greek traditions” is now up here:


      My next two posts will be on Dr. Ehrman’s forgery books, and Tricksters in the ancient world.

      Stop by and let me know what you think!


    2. McGrath has veered away from the scholarly research of others and detoured into his own groundless speculation. He acknowledged that others were referencing the Stoic sage ideal but unfortunately failed to elaborate upon that research. I posted on that Stoic Sage explanation a couple of years ago, drawing upon Stowers in particular:

      Ultimately, there is only one way to know what is the right thing to do in a particular circumstance or what Zeus requires: consult a sage. According to circumstances, the sage might even go against what convention and local law deemed to be appropriate actions in order to perform an appropriate and perfect action. The sage’s action, obedient to reason/Zeus, ultimately defines what constitutes a perfectly appropriate action in any particular circumstance. On this view, moral authority requires a perfect moral expert. Only the sage, then, stands as an authoritative interpreter of these common norms, codes, and local laws. . . . .

      I suggest that Matthew’s Jesus, who, unlike the traditional Judean experts on the law, interprets the law with total authority and embodies God’s own wisdom, is a figure shaped by the Stoic idea of the sage. (2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1653-1661). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

      And again,

      [T]he sage’s action, although always following the will of God, the universal law and reason, might in particular circumstances be contrary to what the accepted moral norms of non-sages indicated was right, even for sages. (2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1844-1845). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

      The posts are at http://vridar.org/2015/07/10/understanding-the-emotional-jesus-temple-tantrums-name-calling-and-grieving/ and http://vridar.org/2015/07/08/saving-jesus-from-hypocrisy-explaining-jesus-temper-tantrum-and-mudslinging/

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